Comedy in a New Mood
Humor and Comedic Restoration of Balance in
The Whales of August
December Comedy: Studies in Senior Comedy and Other Essays
Presented at the Midlands Conference on Language and Literature,
Omaha, Nebraska, 1995 and at the
International Humor Conference of the International Society for Humor Studies Conference,
Bertinoro, Italy 2002
Edited for web publication
This paper is a follow up to a presentation at the 1994 Midlands Conference on Language and Literature, entitled "Senior Humor in American Film." That presentation examined the changing role of senior citizens on the America screen as exhibited in Driving Miss Daisy and On Golden Pond. Last year's paper noted the inadequacy of traditional comedic rubrics such as the "senex" to explain contemporary senior film characters. The senex was to be laughed off stage or at least far from the footlights to make way for more youthful, robust characters to take the center stage of life and community. But characters such as Miss Daisy who hold center stage 'til the final curtain are comedic heroines and heroes in their own right. Northrop Frye's traditional definition of comedy as the triumph of youth over age must itself yield to the vitalist theories of Suzanne Langer, Harold Watts, and Paul Grawe if we are to appreciate the comedic qualities of contemporary senior film.
The Whales of August is a particularly good example of senior vitalist comedy because all of its major characters are elderly. Youth can not triumph over age as in the traditional pattern of comedy à la Northrop Frye, and neither can age overcome itself through relationship with youth as we see in On Golden Pond. For The Whales of August to be a comedy, we must find a comedic pattern and rhythm in the aging process itself. And Whales does indeed demonstrate such a rhythm as defined in vitalist terms.
Vitalist philosopher Suzanne Langer in Feeling and Form asserts that laughter is a response to the recognition of life itself and that the underlying feeling of comedy is "the immediate sense of life" (331). She sees comedy embodying life rhythms; it is episodic, creating a rhythm of perpetual rebirth, of repeated restoration of balance, and of the continued reassertion of a new future. Vitalist Harold Watts in "The Sense of Regain: A Theory of Comedy" sees comedy quintessentially as restoring balance and creating a sense of regain. And writing three decades later, Paul Grawe, building on Langer and Watts, defines comedy as celebrating a patterned demonstration of survival of the human race. If we apply these vitalist concepts to The Whales of August, it becomes easily arguable that by the final curtain, the two elderly heroines have each found a quiet rebirth and together are asserting a new future. The film celebrates their survival and emotional sense of regain. And most notably it demonstrates a pattern of comedic restoration of balance.
All the aging characters of The Whales of August have precarious balance physically. In the terms of Henri Bergson, the mechanicalness of old bodies has encrusted itself on their living spirits. But psychologically and emotionally, they totter as well. Whales demonstrates the restoration of balance within characters, between characters, and within the aging community. And while never billed as "hilarious" or "uproariously funny," the film uses a gentle humor both to reveal imbalance and to restore balance.
At the outset it should be noted that humor in senior comedy is often subtle, even frail, muted by the possibility of death. Even such visceral comedy as Grumpy Old Men must pause in respect for the near death of one of its own. As a senior comedy, Whales will not send the laughter meter soaring. Many of its humorous lines may be more funny inremembrance than in the viewing. To feel the natural comedic emotions of senior comedy, we frequently must give ourselves permission to laugh--to laugh with and at these frail, vulnerable creatures whom we feel we should respect and who are at once irrelevant and prophetic for our own lives.
The setting of this film at the summer house on an island off the coast of Maine immediately suggests the episodic and therefore comedic nature of the work. For repeated summers, Libby and Sara have returned to the cottage of their childhood where in August they would welcome the migrating whales. Though the whales have not appeared for some years, the sisters have returned.
Yet the survival of these sisters is seriously in question. Not only are their bodies frail. They are dependent on each other physically at the same time that they are at war spiritually. Sara Webber is dependent on her sister, Libby Strong, for financial stability and Libby on Sara for eyesight. This mutual dependence is strained by the fact that the two have chosen opposing means of coping with age. Libby, whose husband left her well off, was never deeply in love and now has grown hard and bitter in her blindness. Sara, who lost her husband in the war after a short, passionate year of marriage, remains romantically attached to his memory. Libby's bitter jokes tear at the romantic Sara, while Sara's practice of living romantically in memory goads the more realistic Libby. Lacking balance, Sara and Libby threaten to fly apart.
The Role of Laughter
The need for balance is played out in other characters as well. Tisha, a long-time friend and neighbor, in herself embodies the need for new balance. The only character to use a cane, she has walked out to visit because she has just lost her driver's license and needs the community to help restore her wounded pride. Laughter and humor are central to Tisha's character as well as to her healing. (Letisha means "gladness" or "joy.") Tisha's entrance is marked by a lightly humorous clarinet which announces an unsteady gait but a persistent spirit. Tisha laughs more by far than any of the other characters. She believes in laughter, exhorting the dour Libby, "There's nothing wrong with a good laugh." And when she reports that a friend who recently acquired a hearing aid is suddenly "playing bridge like a champion," she evokes laughter in her friends as well. It is Tisha who makes Libby laugh.
As easily as she laughs, Tisha will tell a joke, and that not without sting. Urging Sara to consider turning over responsibility for her blind sister to Libby's daughter Anna, a woman of more means than sympathy, Tisha makes her point by reinventing a Harry Truman saying: "You know what Harry Truman always said. If the buck is going to be passed, it may as well be passed to somebody with plenty of 'em." And when Libby has been particularly ornery, Tisha quotes her in mild mockery.
Tisha also uses humor and laughter to create balance between her youthful romantic inclinations and her age. An unashamed romantic, Tisha says of her young doctor, "He's so cute, I could forgive him anything." But when Mr. Marinoff, an expatriated Russian aristocrat, compliments her on her appearance, flattery she is delighted to receive, she teases, "That's one mention in my will, Mr. Marinoff." Tisha balances youthful flirtatiousness with a joke about her age. Mr. Marinoff, an incurable romantic himself, will earn a second mention in the will before the afternoon is over.
The Role of Men
The two men in The Whales of August, while vivid contrasts to each other, together create balance for the elderly sisters. Mr. Marinoff, the expatriated Russian aristocrat, offers gentility, refinement, and an appreciation of beauty. He is a gentleman of the first order who holds chairs for ladies, apologizes for overstepping bounds, and chivalrously offers his coat to warm Tisha as he escorts her back to town. Sara calls him "the only man left who bows." Bringing gentility and romance into life, Mr. Marinoff validates the past. In his pocket he caries an emerald, the last of the gem stones his mother gave him to escape the Russian Revolution. This gem not only verifies his own aristocratic origins, it also validates gentility, chivalry, and romanticism for elderly widows.
In contrast, Joshua Brackett, a local handyman, is rough, clumsy, blunt, down-to-earth, and above all, noisy. Libby calls him "the noisiest man God ever created." Highly offended when told he is too slow, Joshua maintains a healthy sense of self-respect. The handyman brings to these widows practical skills necessary for their physical survival. As much as they need the romantic sensibilities of Mr. Marinoff, they also need plumbing that works. Joshua's tool box validates the usefulness of the elderly: he says he doesn't know what he would do if he ever were to retire. And as Mr. Marinoff validates the past, Joshua validates the future; it is he who presses for a new picture window in the summer cottage, arguing that even for the old, "There's nothing wrong with new, if it makes something good better."
Joshua Brackett and Mr. Marinoff represent such a stark contrast that were they forty years younger, they probably would not be able to abide each other's company except in a well-defined employment relationship. Mr. Marinoff would consider Joshua utterly boorish, and Joshua would find Mr. Marinoff précieux. But in this restricted senior community, the two co-exist, somewhat tenuously, in part with the help of humor. Each man is technically humorous in himself: Mr. Marinoff's old world chivalry is slightly mechanical, hearkening to a culture long since disappeared. Joshua's clumsiness, on the other hand, approaches slapstick. The juxtaposition of the two men if taken seriously could be irritatingly painful. But Joshua recognizes the humor in the situation. Even as he is being most noisy and obnoxious, interrupting afternoon tea, he urges, "Don't move an inch [get up], Mr. Marinoff. I already know you're a gentleman." In this scene we see the contrast between the refined romantic and the clumsy homespun as well as the use of humor to reconcile the two.
This scene also reveals the imbalance at the heart of the film--that between Libby and Sara. Libby's bitterness, negativity, and outright rudeness is obviously difficult for anyone to live with. The ebullient Tisha calls Libby "the old war horse," and "a right wicked caution"; Joshua says, "She's a corker, that one." Libby denigrates the past and negates the future, arguing that the sisters are too old for new things like the proposed picture window overlooking the ocean.
Sara, on the other hand, is not so easy for Libby to put up with. Libby is rubbed raw by Sara's unwillingness to face reality. Sara talks to the pictures of her husband, dead now for 45 years, and each anniversary she celebrates alone with wine and roses. When Libby points out that both of them are older than their mother ever lived to be, Sara can make no response. And to Libby's great annoyance, Sara continues to watch for the return of the whales.
This tension between the two sisters is underscored by humor and laughter. Libby tells bitter jokes are her own expense, much as Norman does in On Golden Pond. Like Norman, she uses humor as a defense mechanism: Libby says that the reason old ladies sit on benches is to hold them for spring-time lovers. And like his jokes, hers evoke no laughter. In fact, Libby can find laughter offensive, switching off the Arthur Godfrey radio broadcast as soon as she hears laughter. For Libby, life is a bitter joke: remarking on the irony that her romantic sister was widowed young while her own uninspired marriage lasted much longer, she says, "Life fooled you; life fooled me."
In contrast, Sara's laughter is much like Tisha's. She laughs at old pictures of her family; (such memories are painful to Libby). And she laughs at her youthful naiveté. But Sara also laughs when she does not want to deal with Libby's harshness. She laughs at Libby's insults to Mr. Marinoff's fish, and she laughs when Libby accuses her of talking to herself. Sara does not tell jokes.
It is noteworthy that it is Libby who humorously sums up Joshua Brackett as "the noisiest man God ever made," while Sara defines Mr. Marinoff as "the only man on earth who still bows." Through these humorously exaggerated epithets, the women reveal their divergent sensibilities. In this relationship, the work of humor is to divide rather than reconcile. Libby's bitter jokes throw acid on Sara's spirit, driving her away, while Sara's romantic sense of humor keeps open Libby's wounds.
This divergence is reversed by the end of the play, each women finding a rebirth and the two of them a restoration of balance symbolized by their reversal of attitudes concerning the return of the whales: Sara finally accepts the "reality" that the whales have gone, while Libby seizes a new hope: "You never can tell." This balance, however, is not achieved without the original tensions being exacerbated.
The evening before the whales are scheduled to return, Sara invites Mr. Marinoff to share the fish he has caught at a moonlight dinner, and Mr. Marinoff pledges to return the following morning to watch for the "Leviathons." This dinner, however, tips the scales for too much toward romanticism, provoking extraordinary rudeness in Libby, who beneath the surface fears losing her sister. Before taking his leave, Mr. Marinoff wisely declines to return in the morning.
The Affirmation of Age
Instead, the morning brings a real estate salesman tipped off by Tisha. The practical possibility of actually selling the house and the betrayal by Tisha shakes Sara to her practical senses, initiating a subtle rebirth of commitment to her sister. It is noteworthy that the real estate salesman, the catalyst for rebirth, is the only youthful character. Yet in contrast to Norman of On Golden Pond, who finds regeneration in relationship to youth, Sara finds it in rejecting youth and its values. Rebirth comes with the affirmation of age. And for Sara it is found in letting go of the past and excessive romanticism represented by Mr. Marinoff and Tisha and by practically making decisions for the future.
Though not a witness to this scene, Libby picks up on Sara's compromising spirit quickly and experiences her own rebirth. She agrees--or rather insists--that Mr. Brackett install a picture window before Labor Day. Libby has let go of bitterness and chosen to create beauty, a beauty which can only be perceived and appreciated by others. Libby's rebirth coincides with the unexpected and noisy entrance of Mr. Brackett, who has returned to look for a missing wrench. Her decision is bracketed by the banging of screen doors which always announces the handyman's coming and going. And it is preceded by Libby's repetition of her humorous description of the handyman: "That is the noisiest man God created."
Thus at the heart of Libby's rebirth is practicality, humor, and God. Grace comes to her not through the graceful and gentile but through the clumsy and the humorous; not through superficial balance which fails to deal with a deeper imbalance but through superficial awkwardness which clumps, thumps, and stumbles toward a foundational soundness. Joshua being temperamentally unable to say anything diplomatic, cements the remodeling deal by saying, "I wish you ladies would make up your minds." His lightly humorous bluntness saves face for Libby where refinement would have exposed her, and it clears the way for Libby and Sara to together walk out to the point where they used to look for whales, together embracing a new hope and building a new balance into their relationship and creating a vitalist comedy out of what could have been a long day's journey into night.
The Whales of August demonstrates clearly that the vitalist comedic rhythm can be created within an exclusively aged community, that it need not borrow falsely from youth to find hope and rebirth, and that even when death seems just around the corner, humor and the humorous, however subtle and muted, can be a catalyst for rebirth.
Critical Works Cited
Bergson, Henri. "Laughter." Corrigan, Robert W., ed. Comedy: Meaning and Form. San Francisco, CA: Chandler Publishing Company, 1965 471-7. Reprinted from "Laughter" . Fred Rothwell, tr. Comedy. Wylie Sypher, ed. Doubleday & Company, 1956.
Frye, Northrop. "The Mythos of Spring: Comedy." The Anatomy of Criticism. Corrigan, Robert W., ed. Comedy: Meaning and Form. San Francisco, CA: Chandler Publishing Company, 1965. 141-162. Reprinted from The Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957 163-86.
Grawe, Paul H. Comedy in Space, Time and the Imagination. Chicago: Nelson Hall, 1983.
Langer, Suzanne. Feeling and Form. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1953.
Watts, Harold H. "The Sense of Regain: A Theory of Comedy." Corrigan, Robert W.,ed. Comedy: Meaning and Form. San Francisco, CA: Chandler Publishing Company, 1965. 192-197. Reprinted from University of Kansas City Review, Vol. xiii, No. 1 (Autumn, 1946), pp. 19-23.
Driving Miss Daisy. Based on the play by Alfred Uhry. Zanuck Company. 1989.
Grumpy Old Men. A John Davis/Lancaster Gate Production. Warner Brothers. 1993..
On Golden Pond. A Mark Rydell Film. ITC Films/IPC Films Production. 1981.
The Whales of August. Based on a play by David Berry. An Alive Films Production with
Circle Associates Ltd. 1988.